health communication; electronic mail; patient mail; patient portals; patient-centered care; veterans
Journal of Medical Internet Research Publications
Journal of Medical Internet Research
Background: As information and communication technology is becoming more widely implemented across health care organizations, patient-provider email or asynchronous electronic secure messaging has the potential to support patient-centered communication. Within the medical home model of the Veterans Health Administration (VA), secure messaging is envisioned as a means to enhance access and strengthen the relationships between veterans and their health care team members. However, despite previous studies that have examined the content of electronic messages exchanged between patients and health care providers, less research has focused on the socioemotional aspects of the communication enacted through those messages.
Objective: Recognizing the potential of secure messaging to facilitate the goals of patient-centered care, the objectives of this analysis were to not only understand why patients and health care team members exchange secure messages but also to examine the socioemotional tone engendered in these messages.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional coding evaluation of a corpus of secure messages exchanged between patients and health care team members over 6 months at 8 VA facilities. We identified patients whose medical records showed secure messaging threads containing at least 2 messages and compiled a random sample of these threads. Drawing on previous literature regarding the analysis of asynchronous, patient-provider electronic communication, we developed a coding scheme comprising a series of a priori patient and health care team member codes. Three team members tested the scheme on a subset of the messages and then independently coded the sample of messaging threads.
Results: Of the 711 messages coded from the 384 messaging threads, 52.5% (373/711) were sent by patients and 47.5% (338/711) by health care team members. Patient and health care team member messages included logistical content (82.6%, 308/373 vs 89.1%, 301/338), were neutral in tone (70.2%, 262/373 vs 82.0%, 277/338), and respectful in nature (25.7%, 96/373 vs 33.4%, 113/338). Secure messages from health care team members sometimes appeared hurried (25.4%, 86/338) but also displayed friendliness or warmth (18.9%, 64/338) and reassurance or encouragement (18.6%, 63/338). Most patient messages involved either providing or seeking information; however, the majority of health care team member messages involved information provision in response to patient questions.
Conclusions: This evaluation is an important step toward understanding the content and socioemotional tone that is part of the secure messaging exchanges between patients and health care team members. Our findings were encouraging; however, there are opportunities for improvement. As health care organizations seek to supplement traditional encounters with virtual care, they must reexamine their use of secure messaging, including the patient centeredness of the communication, and the potential for more proactive use by health care team members.